RIP association conferences?

Over the last three months, I have started to wonder if the top-down conference model is broken.

This isn’t an idle muse. In the last quarter, I’ve co-hosted and presented at a one-day forum, attended and presented multiple sessions at O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change conference, attended ASAE’s Great Ideas conference (in Miami, thank you), presented at BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum event (in Toronto, cold day, thank you), and presented (on XML) at the Publishing Business conference in New York.

As I write this, I am training my way home from Washington, DC after participating in a full-day review of submissions for SNAP’s annual Excel Awards, which recognize achievement in association publishing. So I feel very much steeped in events.

That said, we all feel the winds of change. Over the last few weeks, several associations, including the MPA, WPA and SNAP, have announced that they plan to cancel or scale back their annual meetings.

Associations are not alone. Reed shut down BookExpo Canada as a trade show (Humber College plans to continue a companion educational event), and the Audit Bureau of Circulations bumped its annual meeting back a year. Associations and others have noted the unfavorable business climate affecting their audiences.

Admittedly, less is not always less: in canceling its conference, MPA announced that it would hold a one-day, forward-looking meeting this fall in New York. In consolidating its June (DC) and November (Chicago) meetings into a single conference in Washington, SNAP indicated that it was already expanding the frequency and variety of its educational offerings in the Chicago area.

But… at the risk of annoying my magazine colleagues, there are some important differences between the SNAP and the MPA.

I’ve attended the American Magazine Conference (twice in the last three years) and SNAP’s annual meetings (regularly since 2004). Each fall, SNAP opens up its conference planning efforts to members, associate members (typically, vendors) and the association community, inviting proposals for topics across a variety of functions.

At SNAP, a conference planning committee that includes both members and associate members then meets to review the proposals and discuss what makes sense to include. Based on the selected submissions, the organizing committee develops the conference theme. While the process can be messy at times, it is fundamentally a bottom-up effort to gather information on issues, trends and solutions of interest in the association publishing market.

If SNAP is bottom-up and niche, MPA is top-down and broad. MPA is also more insular.

I know that at both SNAP and at AMC, I’m a vendor, a consultant whose contributions in the near term hopefully translate into business in the mid-term. At SNAP, even as a vendor, I can weigh in on content and offer a perspective that hopefully informs and shapes an agenda. But at AMC, the agenda is developed centrally and vendors are really not part of the planning.

We do get asked to sponsor anything than can be eaten, carried or labeled, a model that surely should go the way of the dodo (Bags, anyone? Lanyards?). But do we have a credible thought in our heads? Ummm.. yes, we do, but please answer only when asked.

Insularity shows up in some unexpected moments. While MPA underscored its prudence in canceling AMC, the same organization had no problem posting pictures of a cigar bar (sponsored by Cigar Aficiondo) at its March 2009 retail conference in Miami. Given the state of the newsstand market, didn’t anyone at MPA think posting conference pictures that feature free Cuban cigars might send the wrong message?

When it comes to top-down events, I think the association conference model is well past broken. The tools available to all of us make gathering to network or to hear what someone else is doing an expensive relic. These days, we need to gather to have our frameworks challenged, to essentially treat conference content as if we were an in-person peer-reviewed journal. The days of just showing up for an annual dose of received wisdom are over.

Edited April 17 to add: My friend and colleague, Chris Durso, edits Convene, the member publication of the Professional Convention Management Association. He pointed me to a December 2008 article on challenges (and opportunities) in the conference space. Worth a look.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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